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Dish of Apples, 1875-1877
By the early 1870s, Cezanne had assimilated many of he spatial concerns and techniques of the Impressionists, with whom he would show in their first exhibition in 1874. Under the influence of Camille Pissarro (1831-1903), whom he joined in Pontoise in 1872, the impassioned and swiftly worked surfaces of his earlier pictures subsided (see Portrait of Uncle Dominique as a Monk) for the calmer, more analytical methods that he would apply throughout the rest of his life. At no point, however, did he completely adopt the concerns of Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, or Armand Guillaumin (1841-1927). Transient natural effects and the textures of objects in light were for him too insubstantial to be proper subjects of art. His goal was the “making out of impressionism something solid and durable like the art of museums.” This desire to establish something permanent is nowhere more apparent than in the series of still lifes he painted during the second half of the 1870s. Dish of Apples is one of his most complex and monumental resolutions to this end.
A plate filled with apples sits just at the edge of a heavy wooden bureau with an overhanging top. To the right is a brightly decorated porcelain sugar bowl and a lone green apple. These objects are placed on a white linen cloth, its density evidenced by the stiffness with which it mounds up behind the apples. A gaily ornamented object hangs on the wall behind the bureau. To the right appears the banded edge of what appears to be a tapestry. The only perspectival elements are the overhanging top of the bureau and a small wedge of wooden surface behind the cloth at the right. The monumental effect of objects rendered in space depends almost entirely on the massive weight of the modelled apples, the forceful curve of the plat the turned sugar bowl, and the modelling of the napkin, in which conventional chiaroscuro plays a very limited role, the absence of black being marked. All who have written about this still life have commented on its profound gravity and weightiness, that ‘solemn quality of truth’ mentioned by Georges Riviere.
The objects in the foreground are rendered with a dense application of lean paint to create a surface like richly embossed leather. The napkin, which in profile so disconcertingly recalls that of Mont Sainte-Victoire, is morg fluidly handled, although still with a build-up of numerous layers. In contrast to the deliberate and angular constructivist strokes of the foreground elements, the background is more lightly rendered, with a thinness of paint that allows for quick ornamental touches. These same, looser and more broadly scaled strokes continue on both sides in the blue field, the whole background taking on an animated flatness that pushes the grandly modelled foreground elements even more forcedly into space.
The blue decorative object, with curving architectural ornaments and a portrait medallion flanked by leaves and flowers, was often described in the literature as some type of tapestry or cloth hanging. However, in 1960, Robert Ratcliffe identified the object as the lower part of one section of a large, six-panel, double-sided decorative screen that is perhaps Cézanne’ earliest recorded painting. The artist, late in his life, noted he had painted the screen in 1859-60 for his father’s workroom, reportedly assisted by Emile Zola, carrying out the project in a moment of very high spirits. On the large screen he and Zola painted a somewhat comic Arcadian scene in the manner of Lancret. It remained intact long after Cezanne’s death; however, only the Arcadian scene, now mounted flat, seems to have survived. He often quoted the screen in the background of his still lifes; sometimes as here in the form of a flat, isolated detail, and sometimes folded. Given its scale and the presence here of the lowest band of ornament, he must have dismantled it and hung it on the wall so that its bottom would just clear the Louis XVI commode before it. The sugar bowl, another recurring prop in the small repertory of objects Cézanne would use in Aix over a long time period, appears to be used for the first time here.
All of these facts securely place the picture in Aix, where Cézanne spent much of 1876 and all of 1878. But exactly when was it painted? The loose and varied handling of the background is in contrast to the almost tensely laboured quality of his still lifes of the mid-1870s, when his working of surfaces was most analytical, with clearly directional strokes and an almost mathematical network of cross-hatched field colour. The absolute closing of the foreground with little escape into space fits well within this time period. Yet the considerable range of handling here makes a date in the mid-1870s seem inappropriate; perhaps it should be placed later in the decade.
Often overlooked in discussions of Cézanne’s work is the range of his expressive temperament. In Dish of Apples, a quality of formal resolution—the grandeur of the foreground elements foretelling the still lifes of much greater scale that would follow in the 1880s—is balanced by the gaily painted sugar pot and the rococo screen. In an eighteenth-century reference the screen is treated with a curvaceous levity, introducing a counter classical baroque dimension. It was a moment, with the introduction of one of the most relaxed productions of his early youth, in which he could, with tremendous mastery and considerable expressive range, combine gaiety with solemnity, analytical definition with decorative painting, and monumental resolution with beautifully maintained, flat, stage-set description.
|Institution||The Metropolitan Museum of Art|
|Medium||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||46 x 55.2 cm|